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The Métis in Western Canada: O-Tee-Paym-Soo-Wuk

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The BeginningsThe People and Their CommunitiesCulture and Lifeways

Ask about Métis food and cultural interpreters will tell you, "Rubaboo and Bannock." Ask a member of the Métis community and they may answer "Bologni and Hamburger Soup." Métis tend to prefer a diet heavy on meat but because of circumstances they are also very good at adapting their diet.

While much can be learned of the Métis life and ecology from the fur trade records, the Métis were not always privy to the same food staples as the men employed by the trading companies. While families employed in the fur trade had access to both the wild food basket and staples (and sometimes luxuries) from Europe, the Métis community had less and decreasing access to certain products, as their usefulness and cash flow diminished. After the amalgamation of the HBC and the NWC, many Métis men were laid off, and forced to find other modes of employment. Some found employment in freighting, buffalo hunting and provisioning, and later, in the buffalo robe trade, followed by the buffalo bones market. That list of markets demonstrates a steady decline in the Métis world, as the buffalo, a resource many depended on, became more and more scarce.

The Métis people came to live on other animals, as their prime resource failed. In peak rabbit years, everyone ate rabbit until they were sick of it. They hunted deer, elk and moose. When things were really bad, they ate smaller animals. Some of the families looked for work in the new areas, where there were new jobs. The men went to the gold fields, and worked on railway construction crews. They moved to mining towns and worked under ground. Some became a permanent part of the ranching world in southern Alberta.

The hard time they had finding employment is signalled by the diet of bologna and hamburger soup. They adapted to the new reality and learned to stretch scarce resources to feed large families. Métis websites highlight several soup recipes. The preference for soups may have begun with life in the open, when the easiest ways to cook were to roast meat over open fires or to boil meat with seasonings and vegetables in a kettle.

ChokecherriesOther favourite Métis treats were made from berries that were gathered in the summer. Favourite berries were raspberries, chokecherries and saskatoons. Raspberries could be pressed into cakes and dried. Chokecherries were mashed, with the pits left in and smashed. The resulting mixture was added to other dishes. Having a taste for the acerbic chokecherry is a marker of belonging to the prairies. Everyone enjoyed saskatoons, which were cleaned and dried into little raisins.   

The Métis women also used herbs in their cooking. They knew where to find sage and mint growing wild, as well as wild onions, wild turnip and other edible roots. Burdock, arrowhead and cattails all have edible roots. For greens, one could use lamb’s quarters (also known as pigweed), chickweed and dandelion, for example. As Métis people began to settle, they started gardens and raised most of the common vegetables: potatoes, turnips, onions, carrots, peas and beans. Some of the Métis became good gardeners and good at maintaining the wild crop plants and bushes. In some Métis communities in Manitoba, they maintain sugar maples, and produce maple syrup and maple sugar.

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